Published: August 28, 2018
Review and Onsite Photos by Laura Beach
CHESTER, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA – “They love their Nova Scotia painters,” a friend observed of Crowther & Brayley’s August 4 auction, an annual event that draws hundreds of bidders to the idyllic and oft-painted village in Nova Scotia’s South Shore region. Chester, like neighboring Lunenburg, Peggy’s Cove and Mahone Bay, is little more than an hour west of Nova Scotia’s capital Halifax.
The art tradition in the Maritime Provinces has long been fostered by institutions such as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and Mount Allison University in nearby New Brunswick. Still, collectors of Atlantic Canadian art were once few, according to company principal and auctioneer Bill Brayley, who has sought to change that over the past several decades.
As Brayley explains, “We just chipped away at it and were fortunate. Appreciation for a broad range of artists, past and present, has gone up. Remember, Marsden Hartley painted here, as did Group of Seven artists J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer and others.”
This year’s Chester sale was especially attractive for Americans. Crowther & Brayley charges no buyer’s premium and the Canadian dollar – pumped up in recent years by energy, commodities, banking and real estate – is currently trading at 76 cents to the American dollar. As several recent controversies involving rulings by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board suggest, online bidding is making the Canadian marketplace more international. Still, when it comes to domestic Canadian art and antiques, values have long been low by American standards. Paintings by Canada’s early Modernist circle, the Group of Seven, are notable exceptions.
Conducted in a curling rink on the curiously named Pig Loop Road, this year’s Chester auction saw keen interest in the Ontario school in particular. The day’s top price, apparently a record at auction for artist George Douglas Pepper (1903-1962), was CN$110,000, paid by an agent in the room bidding on behalf of a private buyer for “Blue Rocks.” Executed around 1933, the Depression-era canvas in the Social Realist style depicts fishermen at backbreaking toil among the lobster traps and fishing shacks of the Nova Scotia shore. Sotheby’s Toronto last sold the work in 1994 for CN$15,000. A member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA) and the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA), Pepper, a war artist who studied with MacDonald and Lismer, is represented in most major Canadian museums. “Blue Rocks” had remained with the artist’s wife, Kathleen Daly Pepper, until its sale in 1994.
“It’s a very powerful painting, and unusually large. Smaller ones by the artist can sell in the CN$30,000 to CN$40,000 range,” Brayley told us.
Works by Group of Seven artist A. Y. Jackson or Alexander Young Jackson (1882-1974) seem to do well whenever and wherever they surface. When a small oil on panel titled “Muskoka Lakes,” evoking a weekend getaway favored by wealthy Torontonians, turned up far from home at Fairfield Auction in Connecticut last year, it brought $14,000 before premium. A similarly sized painting on panel, “The Montreal River, Lake Superior,” made CN$38,000 at Crowther & Brayley. Provenance added to its interest. The signed and dated work was accompanied by a September 1956 letter from the artist to Dorothy Slater, in which he tells his customer that, while he has nothing suitable for her at present, he is traveling to Algoma at the end of the month “to get some work done” and that he will “try to hold” a good example for her.
“We had a lot of interest in this painting. It went to a collector in western Canada who was here in Nova Scotia and saw it,” Brayley said. “I’m very pleased for the consignor, a minister who received it from his aunt, who had known Young. They are nice people who are happy to divide the proceeds among their children.”
Art pottery, a Maritimes mainstay from the 1940s to the present, also deserves mention. In addition to pieces by Deichmann, a kiln operated by Kjeld and Erica Deichmann in New Brunswick between 1935 and 1963; and Walter Ostrom, a New York-born ceramic artist who taught at NSCAD, the sale included a trove of materials pertaining to Ernst (1911-1990) and Alma Lorenzen (1916-1998), and their daughter Dina Marca. The Lorenzens began making pottery in New Brunswick in the 1940s before moving in 1949 to Nova Scotia, where they influenced the studio movement through the 1970s. Ten pieces of Lorenzen pottery sold for prices ranging from CN$250 for a leaf-form dish with figural handle to CN$550 for a large, sculptural vase accompanied by a preparatory sketch.
Mushrooms were a signature Lorenzen pottery form. Dina Marca Lorenzen’s original watercolor illustrations of mushrooms, 81 in all, for the Lorenzen Collection by Joyce Barkhouse brought CN$3,500. The subsequent lot – consisting of 28 watercolors and field sketches of mushrooms by Alma Lorenzen – closed at CN$3,300.
“Art pottery has always been reasonably strong,” Brayley explained. Of the Lorenzen group, he noted, “Most of the items came directly to us from a family member.”
Much else, some of it arrayed on these pages, was of interest. We would be remiss not to note a circa 1825 mahogany sofa table, CN$5,000, attributed to perhaps the Maritimes best-known Nineteenth Century cabinetmaker, Thomas Nisbet, a Scottish-born artisan whose work has been studied extensively. A subject for another time is indigenous and Inuit art, always a special category at Crowther & Brayley.
“We operate an old-time auction here,” Brayley told us afterwards. Judging by the packed hall, that is just the way his customers like it.
Prices are in Canadian dollars. The exchange rate at press time was US$1=CN$1.31 (CN$1=US$ .76). Crowther & Brayley does not charge a buyer’s premium.
Crowther & Brayley Ltd is in Waverly, Nove Scotia. For more information, 902-423-3226 or www.crowther-brayley.com.
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